A little house is causing a big controversy.
A panel of the American Library Association voted this month to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s literature award. The Wilder Award is now be the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, per a unanimous vote of the Association for Library Service to Children board, which reportedly drew a standing ovation from the teachers and librarians gathered at the meeting.
The group said Wilder’s hugely popular series of novels about life on the American frontier are out of line with modern values because they “reflect dated cultural attitudes” about Native Americans. That is social justice run amok, according to critics in Iowa and other Midwest states which lay claim to the famous pioneer family’s roots.
To be clear, nobody is trying to wipe Wilder from the historical record or ban “Little House on the Prairie” — for now, at least. Yet the controversy does confront us with difficult questions about aging American art and literature.
Should historical figures be held to modern standards of decency? Can we enjoy art created by people with questionable personal views? And where is the line between honoring someone’s legacy and simply preserving their artistic contributions?
The answers to those questions are complicated, and I don’t know how to answer them. But I do know Wilder’s stories are worth preserving, troubling as they may be.
Due to the fame of the books and later the television series, few other families of their era and status have been studied as extensively as the Ingalls.
The contemporary objections to Wilder’s depiction of Native Americans are laid out in a 2000 academic essay titled “Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve,” published by scholar Frances Kaye in the journal Great Plain Quarterly.
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Kaye points out the Ingalls family illegally built their little house on federally protected Osage land, and since the author was only three years old when the events of the third book took place, the whole account is historically specious. She highlights Wilder’s highly problematic descriptions of her Native American landlords — “wild” and “terrible.”
However, Wilder’s writing on Native Americans was not purely one-dimensional. While Ma believed “the only good Indian was a dead Indian,” Pa explicitly rejects that idea. Soldat du Chene, the likely fictional Osage chief, is depicted as a friendly figure.
And young Laura even hints at the hypocrisy of white settlers’ supposed destiny to settle on Native American land when she asks, “This is Indian country, isn’t it? What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
Wilder’s stories certainly do include dated cultural attitudes, as the literature award organization says. However, with appropriate context, they also offer modern readers a view of crucial moments in American history, independent from the perspective of city dwellers and cultural elites.
I doubt Wilder — who continued to live a simple country life even after her books became famous — would fret about her name on an award. The real tragedy would be if her stories are forgotten.
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